Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The Church and Public Debate

1 Comment

The Church is always speaking out. In the week, early in May 2004, in which this paper was finished the Australian Bishops returned from a two week ad limina visit to Rome where they were congratulated by Pope John Paul II for exercising leadership in the defence of “refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and Indigenous peoples”. The Pope also urged the Bishops to be strong “in the face of increased secularisation”.

At about the same time the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, spoke out publicly against gay marriage. Mr Terry McCarthy, President of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s national social justice committee, called for a major political effort to eliminate poverty in Australia. He took issue with Prime Minister John Howard for denying that the poor were getting poorer. Representatives of Catholic Health Australia and Catholic Welfare Australia supported the stance of the Society.

Such a range of statements is quite typical. The Church has a long and often controversial history of public involvement in Australian politics.

As the Church is seen by some as a critic of the Howard Government, at present the most frequent and substantial arguments against an expansive role for the churches in public debate come from the Coalition side of politics. These arguments are a mix of in principle claims and judgements about what it is prudent for the Church to do in its own interests.

Alexander Downer’s 2003 lecture, “Australian Politics and the Christian Church”, is the most considered and extensive elaboration of the Coalition’s position and thus can be used as an exemplar. Mr Downer’s lecture, written with obvious feeling, also brings together many criticisms made by others, including prominent conservative journalists, of church social justice statements over the past twenty years or more.

He directs attention to what he perceives as: “the tendency of some church leaders to ignore their primary pastoral obligations in favour of hogging the limelight on complex political issues”. Again: “Too often, it seems to me, the Churches seek popular political causes or cheap headlines. And this tends to cut across the central role they have in providing spiritual comfort and moral guidance to the community”. And again: “Apart from disdain for traditional pastoral duties and pontificating self-regard, how best to explain the clerics who issue press releases at the drop of a hat on issues where the mind of the church itself is unresolved or not yet engaged”

These different priorities are not to Mr Downer’s liking. “Those clergy who have lost sight of the fundamentals have filled the vacuum with all manner of diversions. For some, social work has become the be all and the end all. Environmental causes, feminist and gay agendas and indigenous rights provide constant grandstanding opportunities”.

A church surely has a right to choose its own agenda after its own internal deliberations. What Alexander Downer regards as diversions — indigenous rights, environmentalism, feminism, “social work” and gay rights — are to the modern churches serious moral issues. While the Catholic Church stands against some elements of the gay agenda and against female ordination to the priesthood, and therefore is among the more conservative of the churches on some of these issues, it has a profound commitment to advancing most of the others.

This is reflected in both Church teaching and Church structures. Indigenous rights has been a major focus of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council and the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, for instance. Similarly, the decision by the bishops to set up Catholic Earthcare Australia shows their commitment to environmentalism.

There is no evidence that speaking out in public debate is a distraction from the true pastoral role of the Church, unless critics want the Church to devote 100 per cent attention to the pastoral care of their individual parishioners rather than to public comment. In fact, often the Church’s role in speaking out is indivisible from individual pastoral care, whether it is the care of Indigenous people, asylum seekers, refugees, the unemployed or other disadvantaged people. One leads to the other.

The churches are frequently accused by their critics of lacking expertise. There are many elements to this charge. At its simplest it means that church leaders are not trained economists or intelligence experts. When the Church spoke out on poverty and wealth distribution and even more when it offered policy suggestions, it was accused of ignorance of orthodox economics. When the churches criticised the war with Iraq or aspects of the war against terrorism they were accused of not knowing the facts or of jumping to conclusions.

At a basic level it is true that bishops are rarely economists or intelligence experts. That is not their field. But they can and do employ professional expertise. Then in presenting the findings they need to be properly briefed and to have the capacity to carry the argument in public. As the stakes are high the criticism will often be ferocious.

At another level the Church often possesses the 'expertise' that comes from experience in the field rather than behind a desk. For instance, individual priests and Church workers have a variety of such experience with the disadvantaged sectors of the community. Beyond that, Church agencies have organisational expertise not just with the practice but also with the theory. Catholic Welfare Australia speaks with expertise about the unemployed and about the Government’s Job Network. Catholic Health Australia speaks with expertise about hospitals and health care for the aged. The St Vincent De Paul Society speaks with practical expertise about families in economic distress.

Church leaders will continue to make statements during an election year. So they should, because Church teaching demands it and because Australia would be a worse place if they did not. The Church is a human institution. Some statements will be effective, some will be misconstrued, some will inevitably sink without trace in a world of information overload. What we can hope for is that the balance for the Church is as favourable as possible.

In 2004, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council published The Church and Public Debate: Reflections on Speaking Out in an Election Year by John Warhurst. Three years later, the issues he raised remain so topical that we have reproduced some selections from his paper.

[John Warhurst, The Church and Public Debate: Reflections on Speaking Out in an Election Year (Catholic Social Justice Series No 50). Sydney, Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, 2004.]

The Church and Public Debate is available from the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. Visit www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Does Professor Warhurst's defence of the vulnerable extend to those defenceless aged individuals at the mercy of what it's fun-loving proponents refer to as 'The Early Inheritance Act'? Would such defence of those threatened with involuntary euthanasia in our hospitals and nursing homes represent a failure of conscience in the face of what Frank Brennan calls 'philosophical and religious preconceptions'? Perhaps Prof Warhurst could help me and Frank out by explaining to us how
life and death matters, such as involuntary euthanasia and late-term abortion belong within the scope of 'religious and philosophical preconceptions' and not within the scope of the crimes act?

Claude Rigney | 03 August 2007  

Similar Articles

Bishop says Minister Andrews 'has helped fuel racism' against Sudanese

  • Greg O'Kelly
  • 25 October 2007

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has decided to reduce the proportion of African refugees being admitted into Australia. In making his remarks the Minister has unwittingly but distressingly helped fuel the racism of some in our community.


Opinion polls still point to a new Prime Minister

  • Jack Waterford
  • 25 October 2007

Jack Waterford writes that Australia is likely to have a new government by December 2007.